Interactive website helps care leavers learn to live independently

A scheme aiming to prepare care leavers for independence uses a website and a virtual house (pictured) to learn crucial life skills, reports Louise Hunt

How technology is changing social care: a special report

Project details

Project name: Get-a-LifeStyle (GaLS).

Objectives: The GaLS personal development programme aims to give young people leaving care the life skills and confidence to broaden personal horizons and opportunities for further education and employment through tailored learning packages. The GaLS website, via a virtual house, supports the programme by giving young people the chance to network and showcase their achievements as well as get information on how to live independently.

Number of service users: More than 70 young people over two years have accessed GaLS services including educational programmes, skills awards, group workshops and projects, advice and support, consultation groups and foreign expeditions.

Cost: £16,000, for the GaLS website. This included the web development workshops and accreditation for the young people who were consultants.

Timing: The GaLS website was launched on 22 November, and was piloted from April 2010.

The Get-a-Lifestyle programme and website was born out of frustration that too many young people were leaving care with only the bare minimum skills to survive and without the confidence or academic qualifications to compete in a tough employment market.

Nicola Tunbridge, director of foster care agency By the Bridge, says preparing young people for life beyond care these days is often a tick-box exercise: “Leaving care should not just be about being able to get by, it should be about preparing young people to have a whole lifestyle.”

The GaLS personal development programme helps in this by providing the skills and facilitating access to courses and experiences they are unlikely to have had through mainstream education alone. The secure website supports this by giving participants an interactive virtual home to help them prepare for independent living.

Aimed at 14 to 19-year-olds on the programme, the virtual home is designed as a contemporary flat where young people might aspire to live independently. “The website is the home that we have to live in by ourselves,” says Tunbridge.

As members enter the different rooms of the flat they can access useful information. For example, in the kitchen there is information on the refrigerator on keeping food safely and recipe ideas, while in the hall there is a noticeboard where they can store personal reminders such as shopping lists.

It also acts as a hub where young people can socialise with other members through social networking. They can showcase their achievements from the GaLS programme by posting samples of creative projects such as video or photography and also access links to organisations that can provide further ideas and advice.

“It’s really tough for young people when they move on from care. The website is a way to keep them connected to friends and organisations that can help, particularly at a time when the government is cutting funding for young people,” Tunbridge adds.

One of the key aims of the website is for the young person to build an online portfolio of their achievements. Although prospective employers cannot access the site directly, Tunbridge hopes that by setting out their achievements they will be able to see how they can use their experiences to compete for jobs. They will also be offered help in building an electronic CV of practical skills and experience they can use to supplement any gaps in academic achievement.

“We hope it will be a way for young people to demonstrate that they have good all-round experience and can stand alongside their competitors. They may not have lots of certificates of academic achievement but they are resourceful and can think on their feet, and are motivated and engaged in community projects,” she says.

Tunbridge believes the success of the GaLS programme lies in engaging with young people in a way that they like, such as through opportunities to be creative, rather than making them work through mundane tasks to prove they are ready to leave care.

“The programme teaches the core skills everyone needs to live independently, such as being able to cook and manage finances, but it also offers rewards for accomplishing skills that are linked to wider experiences.”

For example, one young person participating in the scheme has taken a 10-week course leading to a community sports leadership award, as well as programmes in personal health management and financial management. She chose to be rewarded with vouchers to go ice-skating after completing the courses. As much as possible, the courses are linked to nationally accredited schemes or vocational awards, such as The Duke of Edinburgh scheme. The rewards are driven by what the young person wants to achieve. “It is a lot to do with tapping into learning resources and experience that is not just mainstream education,” says Tunbridge.

The development of the website was itself used as a way for some of the young people to gain tangible new skills, including certificates in web development. “Before being consulted on the website design they needed a working knowledge of how to develop a website, so they took part in the business meetings with the website developers, which has had a snowball effect in obtaining life skills,” says Tunbridge.

Case study: ‘We’ve seen a huge transformation in him’

Our young person is a very bright young lad but he left school early with no key skills,” says Juliet, a foster carer with By the Bridge, an independent provider. However, since taking part in the GaLS programme, the 17-year-old has thrived, she says.

Not only has he taken part in community voluntary work – mentoring children with learning disabilities – he has gained GCSE equivalents in maths, English and IT which have led him to pursue full-time study in childcare.

“The Get-a-LifeStyle programme has really given him the confidence and motivation to go to college. It’s a huge transformation. When he came to us, just getting on public transport would freak him out. He was very withdrawn and nobody had invested any time in him. The programme has made him feel he is worth it.”

He was also one of the consultants on the Get-a-LifeStyle website. “He had a lot of input into its design when he met the artistic director. He loved putting his own spin on it – it’s a real bachelor pad with flat screen TV and an X-Box. He has shown me around the website. In the lounge he can chat with other young people by social networking, and I especially liked the virtual reality kitchen, which he says he can clean while playing his music loudly,” laughs Juliet.

Offer end date: 20 February 2011

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